Forget dating apps & find love on niche cultural interest sites
Movie fans connecting over a shared appreciation of their fave films. Bookworms bonding on Goodreads. Is this the wholesome future of dating we all need?
To watch a romantic-comedy is to yearn deeply for movie-worthy love — to find the Harry to your Sally, the Patrick to your Kat, the Cher to your Josh (incest notwithstanding). To subsequently open a dating app is to quickly realise that you may have to sift through a lot of unappealing side-characters before you find someone who radiates the cinematic charm of our favourite protagonists. But for young movie lovers tired of the endless scrolling and unwanted dick pics of Tinder, Bumble and Hinge, there’s another option: write a clever review of a film, romantic or not, and catch a kindred spirit’s attention.
That’s just what Erica, a 27-year-old account executive working in finance, and Ben, a 26-year-old documentarian, did, when they found love on Letterboxd — an increasingly popular film logging website — through sharing reviews of the David Fincher-directed Mank. Each partner gave the film a perfect score; the rating-stars aligned and they got chatting.
As author Carl Wilson writes in his book, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, “taste is a means of distinguishing ourselves from others, the pursuit of distinction”. The pursuit of distinction can be lonely and individualistic, though. It is shinier and magnetic when shared with others; think the infamous elevator scene in (500) Days of Summer or Natalie Portman introducing Zach Braff to The Shins in Garden State. Unfortunately, trying to curate a dating profile can feel clinical and somewhat performative (you can connect your Spotify account to your Tinder profile, sure, but your top songs are placed underneath hand-picked self-portraits). Niche interest sites, on the other hand, like Letterboxd, Goodreads or even your favourite subreddit, have an organic sensibility about them — the focus is on your thoughts and passions rather than physical appearance.
“There's no way to look across the bar and know [someone’s] opinion on the Kill Bill films,” Erica explains over Zoom from her home in Chicago. Despite the fact that there are about 900 miles between her and Ben, who is based in the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, the power of a cinematic love language prevails. “She joked that 20 years ago, we would have to meet in a Blockbuster,” says Ben.
Letterboxd stays true to an analog spirit — it does not, for instance, even have personal messaging functionality. Users are literally left to their own devices, in the hopes that their crush has a linked Twitter account or email address in their bio. The effort (okay, sleuthing) required to contact an internet crush may actually be proof of more genuine intentions. Erica found Ben’s email after he wrote a “Muppets Great Gatsby” script that went viral (as one does), and after several phone calls and video chats, she flew out to New Orleans to meet him. The relationship blossomed rapidly. Within weeks, Ben had visited Erica in Chicago and they had met each other’s families. Their days were filled with movie marathons and deep conversations, skipping the small-talk for something immediately cosmic.
While Letterboxd Editor-In-Chief Gemma Gracewood says there are no plans to implement a private messaging feature to facilitate more love stories like Erica and Ben’s — citing the design expense and threat to its community-informed ethos — she trusts that if users want to contact each other, they will find a way. “The idea is to get people to write reviews and follow each other,” Gemma explains. “It's a conversation about movies and whatever else you might like to talk about that’s relevant. The minute that goes private, it stops being this shared community and becomes something quite different.”
It’s worth noting that message boards and fan forums have given young people spaces to spill their hearts out to strangers for years, like the r/teenagers forum on Reddit, stan sites of the past like Gaga Daily and KatyCats.com, and the now-defunct IMDb Message Boards of the aughts — coincidentally, where Letterboxd West Coast Editor Jack Moulton met his wife. What’s changed since then is an exhaustion and in some cases, frustration, with generic dating apps. “If you're on dating apps for like, a year, you get depressed, because you're going to see a lot of the same things,” Ben laments. “There’s only so many times you can read ‘I'm just a Pam looking for a Jim' until you lose your mind.”
Beyond clichéd TV references, unsolicited and/or inappropriate advances, especially from men, are rampant in digital spaces. According to a Pew Research Center survey, 60% of American female dating app users ages 18 - 34 say someone on a dating site or app continued to contact them after they expressed their disinterest; while 57% were sent unwanted, explicitly sexual messages and images. Niche interest sites, while admittedly not totally exempt from users unwarrantedly contacting others, are undeniably more wholesome, which begs the question: should these spaces remain pure and separate entities from the spiky online dating universe?
The diaristic nature of sites like Letterboxd, Goodreads and Wattpad is inherently intimate and personal: Letterboxd’s logging system is called a diary, Goodreads users can thoughtfully curate virtual shelves of their favourite books, and some Wattpad entries seem to be ripped straight from the pages of a beat-up journal. It mimics the experience of entering a lover’s bedroom for the first time, skimming their shelves and postered-walls for glimpses into their hearts and minds.
“She joked that 20 years ago, we would have to meet in a Blockbuster.”
Jack*, a 19-year-old cartoonist from British Columbia, Canada, met his ex-girlfriend on the self-publishing website Wattpad when he was 14, bonding over shared passions for consuming and creating fan-fiction. “I like to have a partner that's similar to me,” he explains over email. “Predictability is important to me as an autistic person with complex PTSD. I lacked stability, so I tend to search very carefully for it in my partners.
Communication struggles between time zones (his ex was located in Greece) and each partner’s differing needs led to a decline in Jack’s relationship. He says he is still not interested in using traditional dating apps, but is open to meeting someone whose tastes align with his own organically. “I have too much to learn about myself now that I'm older, and I'm not putting it on the backburner for a relationship…” Jack says. “I'll wait till I'm older, and if Wattpad's still around, maybe I'll meet somebody there.”
For others, the distance that often comes with this sort of dating is not a hindrance but a relief that they warmly embrace. Janeth Santacruz, a 24-year-old college student in Washington, met her now boyfriend Andrew Lively, who lives in Georgia, on Wattpad in 2011, when they were just 14 and 15 years old respectively. Ten years of video chatting and virtual discussions about anime like Naruto and My Hero Academia turned out to be a solid and necessary foundation for a healthy, loving relationship — the bulk of which was virtual. “I feel that despite our interests changing or our directions in life changing… he was the only thing that was consistent,” Janeth says, noting that they did not meet in person until 2019. “My household was not very stable, and he was my rock through it all. He's always respected me and has put me first.”
The anticipation built for an in-person meeting after nine years of playing video games and developing virtual emotional intimacy was understandably great. But the way Janeth describes meeting Andrew in person is akin to seeing a movie star in the flesh for the first time, whose face you have only viewed through a screen. He was taller than she expected, for one. “I was really scared that [once he was here] the energy was going to be different or we weren't going to get along or that he was going to annoy me, because I tend to be very introverted,” Janeth confesses. “[But] we have known each other for such a long time that whenever he was here in person, it didn't feel any different. Our personalities go very well together. I felt very comforted in his presence.”
And really, whether you matched on Tinder or bonded over a well-written movie review, isn’t that all anyone can ask for?
*Not real name, requested a pseudonym for privacy